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The Play-Goer: Colonial Players’ A New Brain

Lots of heart in this musical ­autobiography of recovery

photo by Colburn Images From left Ron Giddings, Tom Newbrough and Shane Conrad.
     William Finn is best known for writing and composing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Falsettos with his collaborator, writer and director James Lapine. Soon after Falsettos opened in 1992, Finn was rushed to the hospital with what turned out to be arteriovenous malformation: an abnormal formation of blood vessels in the brain. He survived, with A New Brain the result of Lapine’s insistence that Finn keep a record of his own recovery. 
      The play began as a musical revue whose songs were later woven into the full-blown autobiographical play now on stage at Colonial Players. It’s a production that, thanks to the direction of Alicia Sweeney and some powerful performances, has plenty of heart, and a message that it’s never too late to change. 
     Finn’s alter ego here, Gordon Michael Schwinn, is not the success Finn is but rather a struggling writer penning ditties for a children’s TV show and worrying that his best work has yet to be realized. Ron Giddings as Gordon gives the show hear. He takes us through Gordon’s crankiness at meeting deadlines for his maniacal boss, Mr. Bungee, then into his head as fantasies swirl during his hospital stay and finally into his new thinking after his survival.
     There are some very nice numbers here, from the bouncy In the Middle of the Room, as Gordon sits surrounded by machines and medical people, to the beautiful Sailing, a duet with Shane Conrad as Gordon’s boyfriend Roger. Giddings has the chops to make them all work. 
     He is surrounded by a cast that also brings the love, none more effectively than Cheryl Campo as a homeless lady who begs for change — literally — and is more of a symbolic presence than a character. But it’s a presence finely crafted by Campo, whose bright and clear voice bring plenty of weight to her signature song, Change.
     As Schwinn’s mother, Rebecca Downs is appropriately overbearing in Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine, then again in Throw It Out, as she clears out all of the books she believes has hurt her son’s brain.
Tom Newbrough’s Mr. Bungee, the demanding TV host, is a green-clad maniac with a cat-that-caught-the-canary grin. Heather McMunigal is sensitive and caring as Schwinn’s loving agent and best friend. Jamie Miller plays two roles, a nasty nurse and a cute waitress. Glenn Singer plays a nice nurse, whose funniest moment comes when he sings You Boys are Going to Get Me in Such Trouble as Schwinn and Roger strip down to take an onstage shower together. Eric Meadows and Aref Dajani are both effective as a minister and a doctor.  
     There is another character, the baby grand piano, that anchors this production. Cleverly lit and wired and nearly brought to life by Wes Bedsworth, it acts not just as a working piano but also Gordon’s hospital bed, an MRI machine and more. Accompanied by John Purnell’s very nicely designed lighting scheme, a set designed by the late Carol Youmans, costumes by Fran Marchand and Lura Meyers, sound design by Richard Atha-Nicholls, and a host of other contributions, this show is not just heartfelt but also a technical marvel. Kudos to Sweeney for her vision, and for assembling a group talented enough to bring it to life.
     It’s not perfect; several actors at times need to turn up the volume, and the parade of more than 30 songs in 90 minutes sometimes makes the thin plot seem like what it is: a common thread on which to attach Finn’s music.
      But the heart of this Colonial Players production is palpable, thanks to committed direction by Sweeney, taut musical direction by Jessica Deskin, a talented cast and stellar technical contributions that all work together to make Gordon’s often fantastic journey a powerful reality for the audience. 
About 95 minutes with no intermission. Playing Th-Sa 8pm, Su 2pm thru May 5, The Colonial Players theatre in the Round, Annapolis, $23 w/discounts, rsvp: